WASHINGTON — The Air Force has made its first successful test of a hypersonic missile, a critical step in getting the U.S. into the hypersonic arena now led by China and Russia.
The “captive carry flight test” evaluated the mock weapon during flight, according to a release by Lockheed Martin, the contractor for the weapon.
A hypersonic weapon travels at Mach 5 or higher, which is at least five times faster than the speed of sound. The test weapon was attached to a B-52 bomber, the defense company said Monday.
The Air Force confirmed the rest on Wednesday. It said the hypersonic missile will continue ground and flight testing over the next three years with a targeted ready date sometime in 2022.
During the test, the Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) hypersonic missile did not take flight but a sensor-only version of the prototype “was carried externally by a B-52 during the test to gather environmental and aircraft handling data,” the Air Force said.
“The test gathered data on drag and vibration impacts on the weapon itself and on the external carriage equipment of the aircraft. The prototype did not have explosives and it was not released from the B-52 during the flight test. This type of data collection is required for all Air Force weapon systems undergoing development,” the Air Force said.
The Pentagon is pushing fast to catch up in the hypersonic race.
“We set out an aggressive schedule with ARRW,” Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said in an Air Force statement. “Getting to this flight test on time highlights the amazing work of our acquisition workforce and our partnership with Lockheed Martin and other industry partners.”
The ARRW is one of two Air Force rapid prototyping programs aimed at quickly deploying a hypersonic missile, Roper said. The other is the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon, or HCSW.
Lockheed received a $480 million Air Force contract last August to design a hypersonic weapon prototype. In April 2018, the company received a $928 million contract to build an unspecified number of hypersonic conventional weapons.
Lockheed is also to develop the SR-72, a hypersonic unmanned plane called the “son of the Blackbird.”
China is considered the leader in hypersonics, according to the Pentagon. Last August, Beijing announced the first successful testing of a hypersonic aircraft, but the Pentagon has not publicly acknowledged that milestone.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow has developed a hypersonic glide vehicle and air-launched cruise missile that will be in the Russian arsenal next year.
The ARRW is birthed from a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project to develop an unpowered tactical glider that would be launched by a rocket high into the upper atmosphere, then glide down to its target at Mach 20, or 15,000 miles per hour, DARPA has previously said.
That object would be difficult to intercept, as it increases speed on descent and could maneuver like a jet to avoid interception.